A few years ago, Phil Butters conducted a substantial amount of research at the NFSA for his book An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of CJ Dennis. In August 2015, Phil won the National Biography Prize for his book.
To celebrate this achievement and mark the centenary of the publication of The Sentimental Bloke on 9 October, I spoke with Phil about the different facets of the Bloke preserved in the NFSA collection.
Jenny Gall: Can you talk about what you were hoping to find at the NFSA that might provide an insight into the life of CJ Dennis?
Phil Butters: When I began working on the biography, I was hoping that Frank Thring’s 1932 talkie, The Sentimental Bloke, had survived. Sure enough, the NFSA was able to send me a copy on video and that meant I could work through it slowly. It might not be a great film, but it was an important moment in Dennis’s later career, and it was important in Australian film history.
Videos of the silent classic version of The Sentimental Bloke from 1919, directed by Raymond Longford, were already available from the NSFA, but while I was working on the book, the restored version was released on DVD. The accompanying booklet brought together a lot of useful information, and the restored print was of much higher quality. Also, it showed the original tinting—pink for the love scenes, for example — which was fascinating.
Was there other any material that was useful in the process of writing An Unsentimental Bloke?
Yes, there was some unexpected gold in the NSFA holdings. I had no idea that any film scripts that Dennis had written might still be extant. It was wonderful to find a script for a film version of The Sentimental Bloke that he had written in the first half of 1915, before his book had been released and before anyone had any idea how successful it was going to be. Raymond Longford doesn’t seem to have used Dennis’s script in making his 1919 version. There is also a script that Dennis wrote in the mid-1920s for a version of his last larrikin book, Rose of Spadgers, but no film company took it up.
Also very useful were some unexpected papers related to Dennis’s life-recollections about him written by his wife in her old age. She had earlier published a memoir about him, but in these later, more private, writings, she was prepared to be much more open. There are some very revealing comments about what Dennis was like.